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The CEO of the embattled coal mining company Massey Energy appealed to a select group of reporters yesterday to turn the spotlight somewhere else. Massey and Don Blankenship have been in the focus of critical reporting since the deadly explosion in April at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.
Mr. Blankenship told the assembled reporters to look instead at federal regulators.
NPR's Howard Berkes was there.
HOWARD BERKES: And so were reporters from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and local media, all gathered around a dark wooden table in an ornate conference room.
Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): Have a seat and make yourself at home, unless you want some of those nuts or fruits, or whatever.
BERKES: There was also sweet tea and chocolates for the gathering at Massey's West Virginia headquarters, a half hour south of Charleston. Don Blankenship sat at the head of the table, a mustached man who is both soft-spoken and direct.
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: I wanted to give you a chance to ask me questions today and I may even, if it's alright, ask y'all some questions to see whether - whether our communication efforts are working.
BERKES: And for two and a half hours, the Massey CEO took all kinds of questions about the explosion in April that killed 29 mine workers. Blankenship also repeatedly turned to his main talking points for the day. Number one, don't place blame before the facts are in.
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: What we're trying to do is actually to avoid the focus on culpability and figure out what happened. The focus ought to be on the physics, the chemistry, the math, the science, to figure out what the source of the explosion was, rather than trying to point fingers.
BERKES: Talking point number two: the official investigation cannot be trusted because the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is essentially investigating itself. That leads to talking point number three: federal investigators are not allowing Massey to conduct its own probe in the way Massey's hired experts want.
Despite that, there's point number four: Massey has a new theory about the cause and it essentially leaves the company blameless.
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: I don't know that anyone could foresee that natural gas coming out of the floor at UBB was going to be ignited and cause an explosion.
BERKES: Until last week, methane gas was considered the likely fuel for the Upper Big Branch blast. Methane is naturally produced in coal seams and there are all kinds of things coal mine companies are supposed to do to guard against it. So if the blast was caused by methane, well, it's more likely the company failed in some way.
But natural gas seeps in from beneath the coal seam. And that's relatively rare.
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: Most everything you do is guarded against the things that happen lots of times. The laws and the things that coal miners do every day are more in guarding against coal-bed methane than they are an inundation of natural gas.
BERKES: But natural gas infusions have occurred at Upper Big Branch. And six years ago federal regulators laid out eight steps to address the problem. Neither Massey nor the mine safety agency will say they actually implemented any of them. Blankenship says he thinks the company decided more ventilation, more airflow in the mine, would sweep away any dangerous gases.
That raises questions for Davitt McAteer, who leads an independent team of investigators assembled by West Virginia's former governor.
Mr. DAVITT MCATEER (Independent Investigator): And I think that's the question, is how did they address that, and what kind of engineering and what kind of factual basis did they use to make a determination that ordinary ventilation would take care of it.
BERKES: In other words, could Massey have done more? McAteer agrees with Blankenship that culpability comes after the facts are determined. But he believes Massey's conclusions are premature.
Blankenship didn't mention McAteer's independent team but he rejects the work done by federal mine safety investigators. He urged reporters to turn their attention to the mine safety agency and its regulatory practices, which he claims make mines less safe. That was something he said repeatedly.
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: You know, we hope you leave here with some idea that there's a lot to the story and that we're trying to be transparent, and that we find out what happened at UBB, and that we can make all the mines at Massey and elsewhere safer. And we appreciate you coming.
BERKES: And with that some reporters gathered around the Massey CEO for more questions. A half hour later, the federal mine safety agency included Massey's Upper Big Branch mine, on a list of 14 coal mines with chronic and persistent health and safety problems.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Charleston, West Virginia.
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